30 July 2019

Birthdays in the AAS Wall Calendar: An Explanation & Invitation

By Richard Fienberg

AAS Press Officer

Soon after AAS members began receiving the 2019 AAS Wall Calendar in the mail earlier this year, some pointed out on Twitter that all but one of the astronomers whose birthdays are noted in the calendar are men. Some tweets included names of accomplished women astronomers whose birthdays could be listed on the calendar too. In the months since then, we've received email messages and telephone calls mentioning the lack of gender balance on the pages of the calendar and/or pointing out typos (for example, we somehow got Donald Osterbrock's middle initial wrong, writing "C" when it should be "E").

AAS Wall Calendar and Tweet

The law of unintended consequences strikes again! After we produced our first AAS Wall Calendar in 2005, we realized that most of the dates had nothing listed but the...date. Two AAS meetings, a few Division meetings, a handful of membership-renewal and observing-proposal deadlines, and the principal phases of the Moon didn't make for a particularly content-rich publication worthy of display. So we decided to add some naked-eye highlights of the evening and morning skies — such as eclipses, Moon-planet conjunctions, planetary oppositions, and meteor showers — as well as birthdays of our departed AAS Presidents and Henry Norris Russell lecturers. It didn't occur to us that nearly all our birthday celebrants would be men (in particular, white men), but it should have.

The AAS was founded in 1899, and the Society — and the astronomical sciences more generally — have been overwhelmingly white and male for most of the subsequent 120 years. Now that more and more women and people of color are entering and enriching our discipline, we look forward to a time when the gender and racial balance of the AAS membership more closely matches the gender and racial balance of the American population.

We needn't wait till then to do a better job of celebrating a more diverse selection of important AAS members from the past in the AAS Wall Calendar. The question is, how best to do that? Expanding the list of officers and prizewinners beyond AAS Presidents and Russell lecturers won't help much, because except for the Annie Jump Cannon Award, which always goes to a woman, every AAS office and prize will have the same historical bias toward white men.

Instead, we've decided to keep it simple: We'll list the birthdays of as many historically noteworthy AAS members as we have room for, regardless of whether they served as Society officers, were honored with prizes, or were otherwise celebrated during their lifetimes. We've already begun to compile a list. On it are three women of color who left us too early: Mercedes T. Richards, who served briefly on the AAS Council (now the Board of Trustees); Claudia Alexander, a project scientist or manager on several NASA planetary missions; and Beth A. Brown, in whose memory the AAS and the National Society of Black Physicists (NSBP) give awards to young scientists presenting papers at NSBP meetings. Also on the list is Franklin E. Kameny, an early advocate for homosexual rights who was unjustly fired from his US government job because he was gay.

Who else's birthdays should be celebrated on the AAS Wall Calendar? We welcome your suggestions! We've created a short webform to collect your input. There's no hard deadline, but since we'll begin working on the 2020 calendar before summer's end, you should fill out the form by September 1st if you want your recommendations considered for the upcoming edition.

Submit Your Input on the AAS Wall Calendar

Since the AAS Wall Calendar is a member benefit, we ask that you sign in using your member credentials to fill out the form (if you need help remembering your ID and/or password, contact our membership team by email or by calling 202-328-2010 x106). The form doesn't collect or report any identifying information, so your responses will be anonymous unless you choose to identify yourself.